/Gonzaga vs. history: What the undefeated Zags are up against as they enter the NCAA Tournament at 26-0
Gonzaga vs. history: What the undefeated Zags are up against as they enter the NCAA Tournament at 26-0

Gonzaga vs. history: What the undefeated Zags are up against as they enter the NCAA Tournament at 26-0

Gonzaga got its first competitive game in months in Tuesday night’s WCC championship game vs. BYU, but the No. 1 Bulldogs won 88-78 earning their 19th league tournament title to clinch becoming the 20th team in men’s Division I history to enter the NCAA Tournament undefeated. 

It wasn’t for lack of drama. Gonzaga trailed by 12 at the half (53-41) only to wind up winning by 10. It marked the 23rd straight game Gonzaga won by double digits, which is a feat unmatched in at least six decades, according to Elias. This is a program that has evolved from irresistible Cinderella in the late 1990s, to captivating top 25-level program deep into the 2000s, then transforming into a nationally relevant, Final Four-caliber enterprise in the past 10 years. Along the way Gonzaga has made a national championship game (2017) and earned a No. 1 seed three times. It would have been four had there been an NCAA Tournament in 2020, so instead the fourth No. 1 seed will happen this year, when Gonzaga will be awarded with the No. 1 overall seed. 

Welcome to the biggest story in sports for the rest of the month — and maybe into early April.

Carrying a zero in the loss column brings a huge element of intrigue and intensity to the Big Dance. This is the 20th time in 82 NCAA Tournaments (dating back to the first in 1939) that a team has been unbeaten at the start. But since Indiana won it all without a loss in 1976, there have only been four others to do what Gonzaga’s done to this point. If you found yourself wondering what other teams got to NCAAs without a loss and how those teams did, you’ve come to the right place. Seven of the previous 19 won the title as undefeateds. In the modern era, though, we’ve yet to see it. The bracket expanded to 64 teams in 1985, making it a mandate to win six games in order to cut down the nets. It’s more rare now than it once was.

Before we get started, a nod to the 1938-39 LIU Blackbirds, who went 24-0 and won the 1939 NIT at a time when that tournament was considered superior to the NCAA’s. They deserve a mention.

Let’s now frame what Gonzaga’s going up against. Here’s a quick history lesson on the unbeatens of March yore and how they fared once they reached the NCAA Tournament.

One of the most iconic photos in college sports history: Bill Russell after USF won the 1956 national title.
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The seven teams with undefeated seasons

1. 1955-56 San Francisco Dons (25-0). Seeding in the NCAA Tournament did not exist in the 1950s, 1960s and most of the 1970s. The Dons played in a 25-team bracket and rolled by double digits over the likes of UCLA, Utah, SMU and Iowa. Bill Russell’s legend begins here, as the senior center has a 27-rebound, 26-point finale in the title game against Iowa in Evanston, Illinois — Northwestern’s home gym. The win marked USF’s 55th straight. The first mini dynasty of college basketball. 

2. 1956-57 North Carolina Tar Heels (32-0). If Gonzaga runs the table this year, it will match this team’s flawless 32-win achievement. This Carolina team might have been even better than the unbeaten San Fran squad a year prior. Frank McGuire coached the Tar Heels and stars Lennie Rosenbluth (28.0 points per game) and Pete Brennan (10.4 rebounds). UNC defeated Kansas (with Wilt Chamberlain) in a triple-overtime national title game. A 54-53 ending, the only triple-OT championship in NCAA Tournament history. UNC knocked off Yale, Canisius, Syracuse and Michigan State before Kansas. Strangely, UNC and MSU’s Final Four game also went to three overtimes. 

3. 1963-64 UCLA Bruins (30-0). UCLA’s first national championship it would win under John Wooden. The Bruins won small long before Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton got to campus. Here, Walt Hazzard (NCAA Tournament MOP) and fellow guard Gail Goodrich sacked Seattle in the first round, which kicked off a streak that will never be matched. This was the first of what would turn into 38 straight NCAA Tournament wins. After that, San Francisco, Kansas State and Duke (98-83 in the title game) were the first victims of the greatest team dynasty in college sports history.

4. 1966-67 UCLA Bruins (30-0). You already know we’re in the UCLA phase now. This team had Alcindor as a sophomore in his first year of eligibility. Though the 1967-68 team was the one John Wooden would later claim was his best ever (it went 29-1), this group didn’t lose. The NCAA Tournament was 23 teams that year, so that meant UCLA tore through Wyoming, Pacific, Houston (in a revenge victory after losing in the “Game of the Century” earlier that season) and Dayton in the title game. Alcindor flashed his brilliance with 20 points and 18 boards vs. Dayton.

5. 1971-72 UCLA Bruins (30-0). This team has a case as the greatest in the history of college basketball. Thirty wins by an average of 32 points. Bill Walton was a sophomore. The NCAA Tournament is 25 teams, still no seeds, and UCLA completely outclasses its competition by mowing down Weber State, Long Beach State, Louisville and, ultimately, Florida State in the championship game. Phenomenal group.

6. 1972-73 UCLA Bruins (30-0). This is the team that featured Walton and perhaps the best NCAA Tournament performance ever. In a 25-team tournament, UCLA gets past Arizona State, San Francisco and Indiana before meeting Memphis State in the championship. Walton shoots 21 for 22, scores 24 points and UCLA wins 87-66. Alcindor is the greatest player ever, but this game puts Walton in the discussion for No. 2. 

7. 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers (32-0). You’re going to hear “1976 Indiana” said hundreds of times in the coming weeks, as teams have been chasing Scott May, Quinn Buckner and Kent Benson’s collective immortality for more than four decades. May was national player of the year that season. There was no seeding in 1976, but Indiana did win five games in a 32-team tournament. Its victims: St. John’s, Alabama, Marquette, UCLA and Michigan.

What Gonzaga is chasing: the 1975-76 IU Hoosiers were the last team to win it all without a loss.
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Twelve teams that took their first loss in NCAAs

1. 1950-51 Columbia Lions (21-1). Back when the Ivy League could have teams considered top 25-good on an annual basis. The Lions lost in the first round of a 16-team field to Illinois. If an undefeated team (that isn’t a mid-major) ever loses in the first round going forward, it will be the biggest story of that tournament. 

2. 1960-61 Ohio State Buckeyes (27-1). Bob Knight has been affiliated with three teams to go undefeated in the regular season: Indiana in 1974-75 and 1975-76, and this one — when he was a player. But the stars were John Havlicek and Jerry Lucas. Havlicek’s winning shot with mere seconds remaining in OSU’s first tournament game against Louisville kept the Buckeyes without a scar; Louisville missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with a second left. Escape. Ohio State went on to conquer Kentucky and Saint Joseph’s, then lost 70-65 in OT of the national title game against Cincinnati (ironically a year after Oscar Robertson graduated). Ohio State is one of two teams in history to make it to a title game undefeated and lose in the last game of the season. 

3. 1967-68 Houston Cougars (31-2). No shame here. Houston had the task of playing UCLA twice this season — remember, Wooden said that was his best team he ever coached — and still the Cougars made it to the Final Four without a loss. UCLA’s revenge was swift and heavy, though: The Bruins won 101-69, giving Elvin Hayes and Co. a dose of their own medicine. Back in 1968 the Final Four still had a third-place game, and Houston wound up with a season featuring 31 straight wins (with victories over Loyola Chicago, Louisville and TCU in the NCAAs) and two consecutive losses; the last game was a defeat at the hands Ohio State. Hayes was amazing that season. He averaged 36.8 points and 18.9 rebounds. Those kind of stats aren’t repeatable in today’s game. 

4. 1967-68 St. Bonaventure Bonnies (23-2). It’s not just the Final Four that used to have consolation games. The regionals did once upon a time, too. Sophomore center Bob Lanier and his size-22 shoes averaged 26.2 points and 15.6 rebounds and Bona was 23-0 entering the tourney. It received a bye in a 23-team tournament, then lost 91-72 against North Carolina in its first game. It lost again two day later (95-75) against Columbia.

5. 1970-71 Marquette Warriors (28-1). A year prior to this, Al McGuire had a team ranked in the top 10 that was placed in a region he didn’t approve of, and so Marquette refused to play in the NCAAs and went to the NIT instead. In 1971, six years before Marquette won the national title, the team beat Miami (Ohio) in the first round and then lost a 60-59 squeaker to Ohio State two days later. Marquette’s perfect season ended when McGuire’s son Allen was out of bounds on Marquette’s penultimate possession after receiving a pass. Ohio State won the game on free throws.  

6. 1970-71 Pennsylvania Quakers (28-1). Penn’s program went legendary seven years later when it made the 1978 Final Four, but this is the team that won its first 26 games before losing to Big Five foe Villanova in the Elite Eight. Nova creamed ’em 90-47. It’s the largest margin of defeat by any team listed here. Before that humiliation came, Penn pushed back Duquesne and South Carolina. 

7. 1974-75 Indiana Hoosiers (31-1). This group lost in the Elite Eight, but Bob Knight has famously claimed for decades that he thought this was his best team. In 1975 the NCAA introduced the 32-team tournament bracket for the first time, though teams still did not have seeds. Indiana beat UTEP and Oregon State to make it as one of the last eight left. Then it played Kentucky in a classic, losing 92-90. 

8. 1975-76 Rutgers Scarlet Knights (31-2). Because Rutgers would exist mostly in irrelevance for the next four decades after this season, the ’75-76 team sort of got lost in the shuffle after all these years. They also had the misfortune of going undefeated the same year Indiana became the last team to win the title without a loss. The Scarlet Knights made it to the Final Four, and like Houston eight years prior, finished with two straight losses. RU beat Princeton, UConn and VMI before Michigan ended the streak. UCLA, a year after John Wooden’s retirement, won the consolation game. The 1976 NCAA Tournament is the only one in history to have two undefeated teams in a Final Four. 

Larry Bird and the Indiana State Sycamores are one of two teams ever to take their first loss in the national title game.
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9. 1978-79 Indiana State Sycamores (33-1). This is the other team, along with Ohio State in 1961, to have its unbeaten campaign cut off in the last game of college basketball’s season. Larry Bird and the Sycamores were a No. 1 seed in a 40-team field. The 75-64 loss to Magic Johnson and Michigan State is regarded as the most important game in the sport’s history. Indiana State beat Virginia Tech and Oklahoma to start. It got past Arkansas in the Elite Eight after the Razorbacks missed a would-be game-winner. ISU knocked off DePaul in the Final Four. All this while Bird played with a broken thumb. One more note: Alcorn State went 27-0 in the regular season but got shunned to the NIT despite its perfect record.

10. 1990-91 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels (34-1). A powerhouse. Probably the most shocking upset, all things considered, given the era and circumstances surrounding the upset. UNLV was the reigning national champ at the time. It mutilated teams all season long. Riding a 41-game winning streak heading into the tournament, Vegas got to 45 straight (the fourth-longest in history) with wins over Montana, Georgetown, Utah and Seton Hall. Larry Johnson, Greg Anthony, Stacey Augmon and Anderson Hunt were ferocious. Then Duke, which lost by 30 in the most lopsided title game in history a year before, upset UNLV 79-77 and in the process put Mike Krzyzewski on the road to college basketball immortality.

11. 2013-14 Wichita State Shockers (35-1). It’s been seven years since Wichita State became a national sensation. A year after the team made the Final Four as a No. 9 seed, Wichita State became one of the defining programs of the decade. With future NBA picks Cleanthony Early and Ron Baker — in addition to league player of the year Fred VanVleet, who became the best NBA player of them all despite not being drafted — the Shockers had one close game the entire regular season. But thanks to the selection committee slotting an underachieving-but-talented Kentucky team No. 8, Wichita State’s perfection ended with a 78-76 second-round loss in what was one of the best NCAA Tournament games of the decade. 

12. 2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats (38-1). The greatest start in college basketball history. This is the only team to win its first 38 games in a season. It’s one of two Kentucky teams to go undefeated (the 1953-54 team went 25-0 but did not play in the NCAAs because Adolph Rupp said no after three of his best players were deemed ineligible). Kentucky is the most dominant team of the past 20 years according to KenPom. The roster: Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, Tyler Ulis, Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Trey Lyles. The one team people said could give UK its toughest challenge was Wisconsin. And after UK escaped by two points in the Elite Eight against Notre Dame, the season dramatically ended 71-64 at the hands of Frank Kaminsky and the Badgers in the Final Four.

So, what should Gonzaga’s level of expectation from a historical perspective be? Since San Francisco became the first team to run the table 65 years back, the average unbeaten team wins three games in the NCAA Tournament. However, that number doesn’t correspond across eras because NCAA Tournaments of old only allowed for champions to amass four wins, so the data is a bit misleading. Another way of looking at is: the previous 19 undefeated teams, on average, made it to the national semifinals. And given Gonzaga’s greatness to this point, a Final Four appearance — at minimum — is the bar to clear.